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Society, Politics & Law

Bicycle enlightenment

Updated Wednesday 30th May 2012

OU Researcher Pete Wood and Dr Frauke Behrendt from the University of Brighton blaze a trail through the links between bikes and new mobilities

Row of wheels Creative commons image Icon Alan Bell under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 licence under Creative-Commons license Media pundits like Jeremy Clarkson have often accused cyclists of being anti-technology Luddites riding ‘silly Victorian distractions’.  Academics have, however, found that those most likely to cycle are also most likely to use new mobile technologies, such as smart phones, to organise their cycling – and their lives. Furthermore, a switch from private car use to cycling is seen as an important element in sustainable transport and carbon reduction.

A big problem for those promoting sustainable transport in England is that cycling, although producing almost no carbon emissions, is considered old-fashioned and inefficient. Cox and De Walle (2007) call this an ‘evolinear’ understanding of technological change; innovation as a one-way process of evolution. In this modernist vision, new technologies out-compete what has come before and send their predecessors to the dustbin of history. So in this understanding, the technologically inferior bicycle was out-run by the superior motorbike, which was itself out-paced by the automobile.

However, new developments within cycling have demonstrated why a modernist evolinear understanding of technology may be inappropriate. Rather than fading away, cycling is becoming increasingly popular in England, and not just as a retro fashion, or because people are returning to historic ways of life. Firstly, the engineering of bikes has changed, with lighter bikes, better gears and brakes, etc. This illustrates how ‘old’ mechanical technologies can be improved. Secondly, when combined with new digital technologies, cyclists can do things that were impossible for previous generations. For example, work that previously required bundles of files and a car to carry them, might now only need a laptop and bicycle.

Taking the impact of ‘new’ technologies on ‘old’ mechanics one stage further – and in the context of social, technological and cultural change – the e-bike has recently gained in popularity. Electrically-assisted bicycles have a small electric motor powered by a rechargeable battery to help propel machine and rider. This is particularly useful for cycling uphill, against the wind, for not arriving sweaty in the office, or for riding longer distances. The assistance is optional and e-bikes can also be ridden like a normal bicycle. This mode of transport has grown rapidly over the last few years in many countries in mainland Europe, most notably in Germany, the Netherlands, Austria and Switzerland. Currently, researchers are investigating whether e-bikes have the potential to entice non-cyclists in the UK to ‘get on their smart-bikes’.

Interestingly, we often think of mobilities as having two separate realms – the physical and the virtual, but of course we increasingly experience both forms of mobilities at once. The link between media mobilities and transport has been largely confined to driving, walking and public transport – we are now quite familiar with the SatNag, establishing a last minute meeting place with friends, or knowing when the bus is (or isn’t) due. However, cycling is also a relevant and interesting context for the use of mobile media such as smartphones. Underlining this is the popularity of cycling apps, such as MapMyRide and Strava.

The uptake of e-bikes and mobile technology show that peoples' uses of technology are heavily dependent upon their aspirations or what they understand as appropriate behaviour. As the importance of reducing carbon emissions becomes increasingly pressing, our behaviours may well change. In Mobile Lives (2010) Elliott and Urry argue that a change from hypermobility to local and community values, in combination with networked media, could allow for one of their four possible future scenarios – an alternative to our current unsustainable high-carbon lifestyles. Their ‘Digital Networks’ scenario suggests a possible future where innovations from low-carbon industry, many running on intelligent software, reduce our reliance on non-renewable, carbon resources. There would be smart transport infrastructure and carefully monitored carbon allowance schemes. (This would, though, imply the tracking and tracing of everything and everyone, raising questions around civil liberties and privacy.)

Thinking (e-)cycling and mobile media together might offer some ideas towards such a post-carbon digital-networks future. A fleet of 35 'smart e-bikes' are being trialed in several local communities and businesses throughout 2012 and 2013. Mobile tracking units on the bikes monitor their journeys and riders can use their smartphones to receive and share feedback about their e-bike use.

It seems that the new popularity of cycling does not imply a Luddite rejection of technological advancement. ‘Old’ technologies can continue to develop, whilst technical and social innovations can make perfect sense of revisiting a previously disregarded machine. The benefits of the bike in an online world are such that even Jeremy Clarkson may be seeing their benefits. He recently described cycling in Copenhagen as ‘fan-bleeding-tastic’ (Burgess 2012). If even the presenter of Top Gear is willing to see bicycles in a new light, then maybe it's time that the rest of us joined him.

Further reading

Elliot, A. & Urry, J., 2010. Mobile Lives, Oxford: Routledge.

Horton, D., Rosen, P. & Cox, P. eds., 2007. Cycling and Society, Ashgate.

Outram, C., Ratti, C. & Biderman, A., 2010. ‘The Copenhagen Wheel: An innovative electric bicycle system that harnesses the power of real-time information and crowd sourcing’, In Ecologic Vehicles. Renewable Energies. Monaco.

Steinbach, R. et al., 2011. ‘Social Science & Medicine Cycling and the city: A case study of how gendered , ethnic and class identities can shape healthy transport choices’, Social Science & Medicine, 72(7), pp.1123-1130.

Behrendt, F et al, ‘Smart e-bikes: Understanding how commuters and communities engage with electrically-assisted cycling’

 

 

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